Tamms told her mom to tell me not to wear certain pants when I go pick her up from school. Implying that they embarrass her. That, I, Jackson Biko, own pants that she thinks very little of. That my sense of style is luck-lustre and embarrassing for her pedigree. That shit hurt me. Children are an ungrateful lot who don’t care for your feelings. I suspect that they intentionally say hurtful stuff because they know they will be excused because they are children.
The pants in question are decent pants. They are Country Road sweats, one of those carrot pants that I bought in a clothing store in Durban for a steal. They fit well, they are super comfortable and they make me feel like a man who has ‘nyadhi’. Casual yes, but then I’m a casual guy. I’m a leopard and these are my spots. Am I to change my spots because a 9-year old thinks my pants suck and I’m not cool enough for her and her friends? Friends she has known for two minutes? And anyway, if you have a problem with my dressing, you tell me. I didn’t want to imagine that she was implying that I’m old and uncool.
I made a mental note to have a talk with her, after I had sulked a bit. Just the two of us.
So I went to Doha soon after I was told that my pants are shady and I thought about my life and my fashion sense. I get back and I pick her from school (I was careful not to wear the dreaded pants lest I’m disowned). She’s in an okay mood, dirty, yes, but in an okay mood. She throws her bag in the backseat and settles shotgun.
“Seatbelt.” I tell her.
“Where is Kim?” She asks.
I want to say, “He’s in the boot,” but I don’t want to start the conversation on the wrong foot.
“Sleeping at home.” I say. “How are you, darling?”
“You didn’t come with him?”
I reverse the car. Her trousers are dirty at the knees, like she was crawling through a sewer. Maybe they now have religious studies module which are conducted on one’s knees the whole day. What do I know anyway, I’m just a father with bad wardrobe choices.
“What happened to your trousers, darling?”
“Your knees, there,” I point. “Kwani you were crawling?”
I wait for an explanation but I realise after two minutes that none will be offered. Maybe asking about her knees is an intrusion on her privacy. Maybe it’s a thing and old folk like us don’t know. We drive down a valley and run into a small traffic jam at the top of the hill.
“When we were in school we used to be punished by being asked to kneel down and raise our hands.” I tell her.
“Which school did you go to?”
I tell her. It doesn’t register to her. I think if you made some middle class person’s child kneel and raise their hands in the air today, they will call it emotional and physical abuse. They will come to school yelling at the headteacher, “Do you know who I am?” There are too many important people in this city.
“How long did the teacher make you kneel down?” She asks.
“Well, it depends, if you stole maize from the school farm you would kneel for an hour.”
She laughs softly at that. It’s so rare to hear Tamms laugh audibly that when she does I’m thrilled but also confused at whether she is laughing at what I just said, laughing at me or at something she just remembered which has got nothing to do with what I just said.
“You had a school farm?” She asks like it’s a preposterous idea.
“Yes, a small one, for agriculture lessons.”
“Were there pigs in it?”
“No, but there was maize, beans and tomatoes.”
She looks away disinterested. If there were no pigs then that story is not worth her time. A story without pigs is a dud. I indicate onto Gitanga Road. I secretly wish I had lied that there were pigs. She doesn’t like my pants and now she doesn’t want to hear my farm stories. I turn and steal a look at her; she’s staring ahead with a blank face. I want to bring up the topic of my pants but the moment doesn’t seem right, especially because I have killed her pig story. We drive on in silence. She thrives mostly in silence, Tamms, that deep silence that feels like dark smoke in your lungs. At the age of 9, I can feel her receding further into that smog of silence. As her teenage years loom, I feel the silence bearing down on me like foul weather and I realise that I might not be dressed appropriately for that weather. I won’t know how to fill that silence when it comes in gusto during puberty. I won’t know whether to fill it with gifts, or conversation, or with myself and my bad clothing.
As you might have guessed, that day I didn’t get the spine to ask her why she hates my pants so. I sort of promised myself that I would ask her the next time we would be alone together, but then when that time came, she got in the car and said, “I missed you,” and that sucked my heart right through my shoes and the pants were the last thing I was going to bring up in that loving moment.
I realised I had to bring up that topic before it’s overtaken by time because then it would look like I’m the kind of annoying person who brings up old stuff. So the next time I had the guts to broach the subject, we were at the salon where I had taken her to do her nails.
“So what do the fathers of your classmates do?” I started off on safe ground.
“Uhm, they do business and some work in offices, like bankers. [Pause] Some I don’t know.”
I pretended to peruse through an old magazine, to make it look like we are having a casual conversation.
“Who’s your best friend now in class 4?”
“Spell that for me.”
She turns to look like me like she’s too old to be made to spell, especially simple words.
“K-e-n-a.” (Her eyes said, ‘duh!’).
“If she hadn’t lost the “y” she would have been Kenya…” I say hoping to spark a reaction. Nothing. Miriam, the pedicurist smiles at me with a look that says, “Don’t give up. Keep telling her those lousy jokes.”
“Is Kena black?”
“No, she’s brown.”
“Brown like Indian brown, or brown like light, like Miriam here.”
“She’s just brown.”
I’m reading my article in a very old True Love; 2013. It’s embarrassing. I toss it down. Across the room a man in his 50’s is having his hair dyed black. He might as well have been Kena’s father, who knows?
“Have you ever seen Kena’s father?” I ask her.
“Kim, don’t put that in your mouth!” I say. Then to her. “What does he do?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does he normally wear?”
“A suit. Sometimes a white shirt.”
I roll my eyes when she isn’t watching. I bet Kena’s father is in financial services and drives a big car and wears black shoes with laces and Tamms sees him and wishes she had a proper father like that. Not one who wears carrot pants to her school and makes her the laughing stock. I can almost hear her disown me to Kena.
Kena: “Tamms, was that your father yesterday who picked you up?”
“Nooo!” Uncomfortable laughter, “Oh God, no!”
“Oh, who was he?”
“That’s our taxi guy.”
“Oh, he seemed nice.”
“He doesn’t know how to dress.”
As we drove back home from the salon, I reduced the volume of the music and jumped right into it without preamble. “Mommy told me you don’t like some pants of mine.”
I studied her from the rear-view mirror. She was smiling with embarrassment or triumph or both. She said something, and I turned in my seat and asked, “Sorry, I didn’t hear that.”
“Yeah.” She said.
“Why don’t you like them?” I sounded whiny, like a hurt lover. You know how your woman asks you how she looks in a particular outfit and when you admit that you aren’t too hot about the dress she starts sounding defensive? Saying stuff like, “But why? Is it the colour or the design you don’t like? You don’t think it brings out my hips?” Then you have to say, “It’s okay, and your hips are phenomenal. I just don’t like how it makes you look like an inverted bulb.” Then from the look she gives you, you know you were not expected to be entirely honest.
“I don’t like the way they look from behind,” Tamms said of my pants. I stared at her in the mirror, dumbfounded. What did she mean she didn’t like how they looked from behind, what is she doing looking at my pants from behind? Has she been looking at my ass? The image that came to my head was of a baby who has soiled his diaper and so it hangs on his bum as he waddles around.
“So,” I explained. “ There are fathers like Kena’s dad who probably work in offices and are required to wear suits and ties and trousers, but some of us, are artists. Do you know what an artist is?”
“Someone who draws?”
“Or writes or paints or sings or does stuff for a living that doesn’t involve, uhm, a formal office setup.”
“What is formal?”
“Like, you know, someone with a boss.”
“You don’t have a boss?”
“No. So I don’t have to wear suits. I can wear a t-shirt to work, and some days I just want to wear a t-shirt to work. You get?”
We drove on for a bit. “But I promise I won’t wear those pants to pick you up. What trousers should I wear? What trousers do I look good in?” (Fishing for compliments).
“Uhm, just wear anything nice.”
My dad used to wear these horrible trousers with a million pleats running up front. I hated them. He’d show up in them in school and I was always embarrassed at what others thought of me. Of us. This was the 80’s when trousers were made big like a tent, just incase you needed extra material from which to make an arm sling. His pants also had these massive turn ups. In primary school my mom had this large node on her calves which I only found out much later out was a varicose vein after reading a bit of biology. It didn’t embarrass me, but I was always afraid that one of my friends would notice it and ask me what that was. I wouldn’t have known what to tell them. Fine, our parents sometimes embarrassed us, but we kept it to ourselves! We didn’t go hurting their feelings and planting insecurities in them. That’s no way to treat a parent.
To imagine that Tamms is embarrassed of me fills me with such sorrow. I mean it could be worse, I could show up in a leather “chaket” like a typical Kalenjin from Iten, but am I? No. I could show up in a stetson hat like a Kuyu, complete with sharp-toed cowboy boots and some checked shirt humming country music songs, a toothpick hanging from corner of my lips. But I don’t. I could wear a yellow shirt to her parent-teacher meeting and be one of those annoying parents who are always standing up to ask a million inane questions. But I don’t. My crime is that my pants don’t look good from behind. I mean, if I had a big ass maybe they would fit better but how can my ass grow big when I worry about seeing that she gets a decent goddamn education? Is that what she wants, a father with a big ass? I don’t think so. Nobody wants a father with a big ass.
It’s hard enough being a father, now you have to worry about what you wear to her school lest, God forbid, you misrepresent her. Because apparently now they have a reputation to uphold, and you showing up in jeans is not good enough for the image she has cultivated amongst her peers. I think the only problem would be those fathers who still wear those Obama jeans. They should stop. They not only embarrass their children, they embarrass other fathers in school.
You should see me now when I go to pick her up. I wear khakis and a proper shirt, tucked in, and shoes that aren’t canvas so that I look gainfully employed and not some vagabond father. I look like I’m going to give a eulogy. But even when I dress up like this, I don’t get complimented, my efforts go unacknowledged and unappreciated. I don’t even know if she approves or not and I might never know until one day I hear it over the grapevine. It’s not like I want to be showered with compliments, I just want her to say something like, “I like your shoes, papa.” But do fathers get complimented for putting their best foot forward? Nyet.
“How do you like how I’m dressed today, darling?” I asked recently.
“Just nice? Not dope? Not fantastic?” Or wonderful? (Big goofy smile)
“I like the trousers you wore on Friday, the blue ones.”
“Oh really? I will wear them tomorrow.”
“Don’t wear them all the time.”
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